Shooting from an aeroplane

Ok I admit it, i want a drone… I badly want a drone, but for now I don’t have one. If there’s anyone out there who would like to donate, ok maybe not. I nevertheless love shooting from above, as you’ll have no doubt discovered from my blog on roof topping. One way to do aerial photography on the cheap is to take photos from the window of your commercial airline plane, as you need to be in the air for some reason or another how about making it productive! Of course if you can go one better and charter your own plane, you have more money than me, and hey how about donating me that drone! In order to get the best results here there are a few things you can do, some are more common sense than about photographic technique.

Snow capped mountains as the plane flies over Glencoe on the shore of lake wakatipu. The flight into Queenstown is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world.

Snow capped mountains as the plane flies over Glencoe on the shore of lake wakatipu. The flight into Queenstown is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world.

Get the window seat

Well obviously! If you wish to take photos from an airplane, you’ll need to get that window seat. In order to do that you could pre-book your seats on the plane, and option some airlines off at an extra cost. If pre-booking isn’t an option then you’ll need to beat the crowd and arrive early to check-in and request your seat. Now as well as getting the window seat you’re going to want to consider where you want to be in relation to the wing of the plane, do you want to include the wing in your composition or exclude it? If you want a nice clean view, getting a window seat at the back of the plane is probably best. Now you need to decide if the left or right hand side of the plane will give you the best photo opportunities. Are the mountains or city you wan to shoot going to be on the right or left? How about the sun, if you’re shooting into the sun you’ll have a harder time getting a good shot, so make sure you choose the correct side to avoid this. Now you’ve chosen your seat, sit back, tighten your seat belt and enjoy the ride.

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Sydney looks great from above, and the habour makes great shapes for this photo. However I’d love to have shot from the other side of the plane, and see the Sydney opera house from above.

The flight path

If you’ve flown this route more than once then you of course have the experience needed to choose the correct side of the plane to sit on, and you’ll know which landmarks you’re going to try and shoot below you. If you haven’t flown the route before try asking people who have to give you advice,  lastly look at the route on a world map and attempt to anticipate the route. Once flying try consulting the in-flight navigation so you can see when your plane is going to be flying over points of interest such as islands or coastline areas. On a recent trip to New Zealand I read the flight into Queenstown is one of the most beautiful on the world, I certainly didn’t read wrong. When I got to the flight desk in Auckland I asked to have the seat at the back of the plane, and asked the lady at the desk which side would be best to sit on.

Stages of the flight

There are 3 stages to any flight, take off, mid-air and landing. Each stage offers it’s own opportunities, and you need to be ready for them. In essence take-off and landing offer you the same angles and possibilities though with these being – change in height and when the plane banks. As the plane is taking off or landing you’ll have the chance to shoot from a more horizontal angle for the first couple of minutes of the flight, this can be especially useful if you want to shoot a cityscape, and your flight path happens to lend itself to that. It’s for this reason you need to be alert in the early and final stages of the flight. The next thing to watch for is when the plane banks, and hopefully you’re now looking more downwards than up. Assuming the plane banking gives you a birdseye view of the ground it’s time to get shooting as you can now fill your frame more easily, you won’t get as many reflection in your photo either; however some luck is needed to be flying over something that’s photographically interesting. Now the final stage is when you’re mid-air, things remain fairly constant during the flight. Now from this higher angle shoot mainly downwards, you probably want to avoid the horizon line, but not always.

Not long after take off gives you a chance to shoot from a slightly lower angle, and for this I was able to use the river to lead nicely into my shot.

Not long after take off gives you a chance to shoot from a slightly lower angle, and for this I was able to use the river to lead nicely into my shot.

Avoiding reflection and flare

Shooting from the window of a plane is great for the angle, what’s not always so great is the window itself that maybe scratched and will have reflection on it. As long as your window isn’t to scratched them simply shoot from an area where the scratch doesn’t show in the frame, if that’s hard to avoid you could try cropping out the scratched area in post processing, however if the mark spoil your shot in the wrong area you could be out of luck entirely. The second issue is similar to the issue faced when shooting through glass in a tall building, namely reflection. The same methods to avoid this can be applied here, that means blocking the reflection with perhaps some black cloth, or if you have it an attachment that goes from the lens to the window – http://www.lenskirt.com/.

 

The camera equipment

The camera equipment you use is at your discretion, anything from a smart phone to a dSLR are valid options. In some ways a smart phone is actually better because it’s easier to get the lens near the window, thus getting better angles and avoiding reflections. In terms of the equipment I used, well that was a Canon 5D mk2 with a 17-40mm f4 lens. In the photos I’ve taken I used a wide angle lens to get a lot of the scene in the frame, though if you wish you could try using a telephoto lens to focus on specific things below you. The settings I use are aimed at getting the photo as sharp as I can, not easy in a fast moving plane and shooting through a window. I use either f8 or f11 for optimal lens performance and then have an ISO of 1250 or perhaps higher to capture photos at a fast shutter speed of around 1/2000th. The fast shutter speed is needed because you’re traveling in a very fast plane, if you took a photo in a car at 1/50th you’d expect the image to be blurred and the same applies to a plane.

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The farm fields made a great texture below, and the mountains in the distance add more scale to this photo. I shot this on the flight from Jeju to Gwanhju, so this area of Korea is Jeollanamdo.

Composing your photo

There are a few ways to compose your shot, some of your decision will be based on where in the plane you find yourself. The shot options you have are framing the shot through the window, framing the shot with the airplane wing, a regular landscape photo with a horizon line, or a birds-eye view looking straight down over the land.

  • Shooting through the window will give your photo a natural from, you could centre the window of have it off centre and use the rule of thirds for composition. This shot is tricky to get the light balanced though as inside the plane is much darker than outside. You may decide to use some post processing techniques such as digital blending, or darkening the centre of your photo using a program such as niks color efex.
  • Using the wing of the plane to both contextualise and compose your shot is another popular photo when shooting from a plane. Use the wing to construct a composition that uses the rule of thirds, whereby a third of the composition will be the plane wing and the rest will be the landscape below. You could choose to shoot the whole wing of the plane in a more vertical composition, or compose shooting down and including just a portion of the wing.
This is the edge of Bali, the textures of the mountains makes for a nice shot. I've included the side of the window is the frame partly because I can't crop it out without losing the edge of the island, and partly to add context to the shot.

This is the edge of Bali, the textures of the mountains makes for a nice shot. I’ve included the side of the window is the frame partly because I can’t crop it out without losing the edge of the island, and partly to add context to the shot.

  • Including the horizon line when the plane is mid-air is possible, but I prefer to take these shots as the plane lands or takes off. These shots are going to be composed in a similar way to how you might shoot from a roof top of a tall building. The horizon line should sit in the top of bottom third of the frame, unless you’re going for something like a dutch angle of minimalism with just the very bottom of the frame showing the land below with most of the frame showing sky.
  • The final type of shot is shooting straight down. In this case you want strong lines and patterns below you. The edge of a coast line, the outline of an island, or farm fields are all possibilities here. If you can get a main focal point in your image as always this helps. As I mentioned earlier when the plane banks it can be an ideal time to shoot out of the window for this straight down sort of shot.
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In this photo the plane wing leads you into the shot, and takes up the right third of the frame. Below the wing I’m shooting the beautiful cloudscape rather than what’s below it.

Post processing work

Post processing of these images is about 2 things, enhancing your image and removing distracting elements. The easiest way to remove distracting area’s of the frame is to crop it, perhaps there is reflection off the window that was unavoidable. The reason I shoot with a wide angle lens is to get a lot of the scene below me, but I also take advantage of the 21 megapixels my camera has so that cropping will allow me to still have a good sized high resolution image. I then look at enhancements, I typically use niks color efex for all my images and often use pro-contrast to enhance the image. There maybe other adjustments to make such as using a graduated ND filter or lightening the centre. Once these adjustments are made though dealing with the noise is the next issue, and having shot out of a window with a high ISO you will have noise. I use dfine, which isalso a niks software product, to deal with this though you might want to use something else like noise ninja.

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This is the coastline at the northern end of Australia, I like the shapes the coastline was making here and opted to shoot straight down.

 

So now you have some an idea of what you need to do to take good airplane photos, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog and it’s improved your results.

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